Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Optional Is the New Hard

Two years ago, players were complaining that the dungeons of World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion were not fun because they were too difficult.  The Blizzard response - that content should possess non-zero challenge - was as accurate as it was irrelevant.  Customers were dissatisfied with the level of fun they were having with the results of the design, not the quality of the design itself.

Today, Blizzard argues that various non-raid activities - such as daily quests and running the looking-for-raid difficulty in pick-up-groups - are optional for raiding because only the very top difficulty setting is balanced so tightly as to assume that players have the best gear available.  I like to call this the "pants optional" argument - no MMO I am aware of has a mandatory requirement that characters wear pants, but very few players opt to go pantless.  The choice technically exists, but is largely uninteresting, as there is almost always (*) no benefit to going without pants and the player would then be obligated to upgrade the rest of their gear to off-set the stats from the missing leggings.   More to the point, every bit by which you exceed the theoretical minimum requirement gives the player - and the group of 9-24 friends they are raiding with - that much more margin for error to help secure victory.

We could sit here and argue the academic/semantic merits all day, but this misses the point for the same reason Blizzard's 2011 defense of the game's difficulty missed the point.  If paying customers feel like they are obligated to do something that they do not believe is fun, it does not matter if the customer is theoretically incorrect.  Lecturing the customer on why they are incorrect, not as good at playing the game as people who are beating the content with the minimum gear, and need to find new friends with lower expectations - however accurate all of these statements may be - is not a good business strategy. 

The structural issues with Cataclysm as an expansion probably would not have gone away had the game's initial cadre of heroic dungeons launched with lower difficulty and shorter completion times.  Even so, it was an inauspicious start to what turned into the game's least successful era to date.  If Blizzard continues to build a game whose core endgame mechanic is upgrading character performance through acquisition of better gear, and continues to require non-raid content for access to upgrades that raid players want, Pandaria may not be off to any better of a start. 

(*) - There have been several eras of WoW in which certain tanking classes were obligated to intentionally lower their mitigation when attempting content that was significantly below their gear level, because their classes were dependent on taking sufficient quantities of damage in order to generate resources.  Several players I knew would remove their characters' pants in this scenario, because it was the quickest and most humorous way to accomplish this. 


  1. Blizzard is funny for a lot of reasons. One of the big ones is that they sometimes don't seem to be aware of the word "moderate" (adjective style).

    There are complaints that something is too hard/good/long/easy/furry/pink is to take it a very long way in the other direction.

    In Cataclysm, Paladin tanks stacked Mastery, a mitigation stat for them, until they reached a cap, at which point they took 30% less damage from all physical attacks. This was considered too good, and not fun, by a lot of people. (I personally found this perfect and fun because I knew what I had to do to be a good paladin tank)

    In response, Mastery received a double helping of nerf (that is, it was nerfed in two different ways) and the best stats for a paladin tank to stack are now dps stats - hit and expertise, which make it easier to connect your sword to someone's face, and haste, which lets you do so faster. This is so much the case, that paladin tanks actively avoid gear with parry/dodge/mastery (traditional mitigation stats), in favor of hit/expertise/haste.

    At the start of Cataclysm, Blizzard released a ton of really hard content, which was interesting a few times if you ran it with skilled friends. This was considered no fun, and in response Blizzard release three dungeons that could be completed while /afk /follow.

    Beast Master hunters were ridiculously overpowered at the start of Wrath of the Lich King. In response, Blizzard nerfed them so hard, it took until Dragon Soul before there was a point in taking a Beast Master hunter to a raid.

    So, I don't think I'm exaggerating (much) when I say that Blizzard has blocked the phrase "moderate change" from their corporate vocabulary.

  2. Erhm. That isn't what I meant to type. Stupid fingers.

    "Their response to something that is too hard/good/long/easy/furry/ping ..."

  3. But here's the thing, there are plenty of non progression raiders who enjoy LFR and like being able to work on the dailies so they can progress their characters. There are even players who raid in raid guilds who enjoy being able to run LFR with their alts or in a more social setting with guildies.

    So Blizzard may be right in telling those who see themselves as more hardcore to stuff it. They really don't need to do LFR if they don't want to go and its not onerous anyway. Those people need to shut up and deal.

    In Cataclysm, Blizzard pandered (sic) to those players, this time round things will be different because they have the balance right between entertaing the 'all raid all the time' player and everyone else.

  4. I think Blizzard is 100% on the money here.

    Some players are complaining that to be 100% optimal they have to do something they don't like.

    Blizzard responds saying that you have other options to gear up and trying to be 100% optimal to the detriment of your own fun is something that you need to police in your own life.

  5. "If paying customers feel like they are obligated to do something that they do not believe is fun, it does not matter if the customer is theoretically incorrect."
    I'm not so sure about this. While in the short term players may prefer easy and quick, in the long term they may find themselves having less fun, because everything was easy and quick.

    As for pantless tanking, I wore a dress and crimson felt hat. Looking that good makes it hard to avoid attention. I kept my pants on, usually.

  6. I think it is fair to state the Cataclysm design vis-a-vis difficulty was objectively bad, and thus a design of poor quality. Difficulty in the abstract might be a matter of taste, but the LFD tool simply breaks down when the success rate of the groups it cobbles together dips below X percent. As fewer people use the tool, the longer the queues become, discouraging even more people from queuing at all.

    I further disagree with your argument regarding obligation. I think there is space to suggest that perhaps X hours of dailies is too much compared to Y hours, but you cannot simply cede the argument to raiders not wanting to engage in non-raiding activities entirely. There is literally no end to raider "obligations": it is turtles all the way down. Should they not have to level up either? Should last expansion's raiding gear be better than anything they would acquire from 85-90? Then suddenly last expansion's raiding gear becomes the new required.

  7. Cool article! By the way, if for any reason you need to find out your IP address go here: http://www.sitetrail.com/my-ip/

  8. MoP feels much more grindy than previous expansions. This is dangerous. Rift felt the same way to me at the end, and I find that it presents a very strong barrier to returning. Not only did I get tired of grinding, but having been away it makes returning feel pointless, since I'd be so far behind (yes, I know a new expansion is coming out.)

    I suspect when people leave WoW during MoP, a smaller proportion of them will come back before the next expansion, if ever.


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